“The Son of Joseph” (“Le fils de Joseph”)
Looking for Father
Eugene Green’s “Son of Joseph” is about the world of a troubled teen, Victor (Victor Ezenfis) who is not happy living with his single mother, Marie, (Natacha Régnier) and her insistence that he has no father. One afternoon, home alone, Vincent goes through the cabinets at home and he finds a document that connects him Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a hotshot book publisher who left Marie for the sake of philandering in the literary world.
Vincent has been intensively studying the violent father-son gesture in Italian master Caravaggio’s 1603 painting “Sacrifice of Abraham”, of which a wall-sized replica of which hangs in the teen’s bedroom thus letting us know that he will use what he has learned to find his father.
Vincent manages to copy the key to Pormenor’s office in a chic Parisian hotel and hides under the sofa to eavesdrop on him. He soon realizes that Oscar isn’t the father any boy would dream of. This discovery together with Vincent’s odd obsession with the Caravaggio in which Abraham holds a knife against his son Isaac’s throat, results in the boy doing the opposite and handcuffing and gagging his father (who still doesn’t know his identity). However, Vincent’s indecisiveness involves choices between good and bad and when he finally puts the blade against Oscar’s neck, he runs away from what he’s done without fully achieving his goal.
In one of the first scenes, Vincent and a buddy talk about a profitable sperm-selling operation, we see that is not a comedy. The film’s main exchange of ideas and emotions comes between Vincent and the adult Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione) who is Oscar’s ne’er-do-well brother. They meet by chance and become friends by looking at the world together in the parks, streets and museums of summertime Paris. A visit to the Louvre acquaints Vincent with two religious masterpieces: Philippe de Champaigne’s “The Dead Christ” and “Joseph the Carpenter” by Georges de la Tour. The latter painting makes the entire meaning of the film clear especially when Vincent casually remarks that Joseph isn’t little Jesus’ real father but Joseph (the movie character) suggests that he became a real father through the presence of his son.
“The Son of Joseph” is filled with talk about God, Biblical art, life, parenthood, filialness and relationships, but this is not handled seriously and there are more serious ideas at center of the film. There’s a reason the two main adult characters are called Joseph and Marie, and it seems that director Green gently plays around with the expectations of the viewers. In the film’s Biblically inspired chapters that have names such as The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Flight to Egypt and The Golden Calf, we get a (satirical look at the ridiculously self-obsessed publishing world. There is the combination of highbrow and lowbrow elements all through the film.
In one scene, Oscar shows up for some afternoon fun with his assistant and as illicit deeds take place above the camera (with the sound communicating everything we need to know) all we can do is see and admire the decorative construction of the furniture.
This principle of elimination informs every scene here, from a literary cocktail party that Vincent crashes to a dinner date between Marie and Joseph, that shows a blatant disregard for naturalistic ambiance. Green outlines his character’s feelings and motivations in dialogue and makes sure that there is no interruption of sentiments. Yet, a sense of psychological complexity and mystery remains.
Green shares his views on parenthood and the evolution of the family construct. He has a wry sense of humor and although the film is concerned with Biblical art and filial relations, this is handled lightheartedly. When Vincent discovers that his father is a vile egomaniac, he decides to get his revenge and cultivates a plan heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s painting.
Green combines formal precision with garrulous personalities to give a dreamlike impression of reality. Each character talks directly to the soul of the viewer making it impossible to escape the romance and joy on the screen. Green’s thoughts about life, love and misplaced paternity are great fun. Victor’s plan to covertly observe his dad is complicated when he’s mistaken for a prodigious young novelist by a pretentious book critic Violette (Maria de Medeiros), who ushers him awkwardly into the champagne gossip circuit of the Parisian literary scene, a great target for satire.